An Insider’s Top 10 Tips for a Successful Wine Country Visit

By Tom Wark

Its that time of year. Visitors looking for a taste of the authentic are plowing through Northern Californias wine country looking to soak up that wine country lifestyle theyve read so much about. The visitors will come in droves to Napa and Sonoma now through the end of fall.

If you are one of those looking to head our way, here are a few tips, ideas and cautions that will make your foray into wine country more rewarding:

1. Dont try to visit all of Napa Valley or Sonoma County in one day. Choose a smaller region like Carneros, Oakville, Calistoga, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley or Dry Creek Valley and concentrate on that. Napa and Sonoma are simply too big to handle. And who wants to stay in their car driving all day?

2. If you can do more than five wine tasting rooms in a day you are better man than me. By the time you get to number 7 or 8 youll either be drunk or too tired to care. Pick 4 or five intriguing wineries to head off to, and concentrate your energy on them.

3. Bring water! While you are tasting wine and probably should be spitting it out, youll never do that. Youll be swallowing. Stay hydrated. Keep water in your car.

4. Take your camera into the tasting room to remind you of what you liked, but didnt buy. Take shots of the bottles you enjoyed, but wont be buying. Its a great way to keep an on-the-fly record of what you want to seek out again.

5. Make restaurant reservations early. The best wine country restaurants, particularly on the weekend, fill up fast. Do your research before you arrive and get your place at the table.

6. Walk around town. The greatest charm of wine country is often found in its towns. Get out of your car and stroll. Many of these wine country towns and villages have great discoveries waiting for you. Check out Sonoma, Glen Ellen, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Calistoga and St. Helena.

7. If you make an appointment to taste at an appointment-only winery, you will be expected to buy. They wont cuss you out if you dont, but just be aware that this is the expectation of the hosts.

8. Never be pressured to buy anything at a winery. I know that after sipping down 6 or 7 wines that feeling of being a bad guest if you dont buy will over come you. Dont let that feeling overcome you. When you are done and decide not to buy simply say, thank you very much, turn away and walk out. They wont chase you down.

9. Dont let anyone make you feel stupid. Life is too short to deal with jerks behind a bar who think they have a right to look down on you. There are hundreds of wineries to visit. The moment you feel like you are being talked down to — get back in the car and leave.

10. Doze off. Thats right. Find a small quiet winery, buy a bottle of Rose, get two glasses and some cheese, find a shady spot on the grass, eat, drink then doze. Really, theres nothing better than putting your back on the grass in the middle of the afternoon in a place thats quiet after having a couple of glasses of rose. Let the warm breeze brush over you. Let the wine do its trick. Dont worry about getting to the next winery before its closing time. Just doze.

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Reader Comments

Some great — and different — pointers. For the standard out-of-town visitor, how long would you say is the ideal visit to Wine Country? 1, 2, 3 days? Longer?

I say at least 2 nights in one place. I’m not one of those people who likes to see 10 country in 12 days. I like hunkering down somewhere and trying to know the place. Don’t rush it. Find time to stroll. Make time to just drive around the back roads and discover something. The Sonoma wine region and sonoma county in general is stunning. Take three days. visit no more than 8 wineries and spend the rest of the time visiting and eating.

What good and insiteful tips. I wish I had read this before I did my first wine tasting trip. We did okay 15 in three days but I bought from all but one. Guilt driven buys most time. Since I have learned, I buy what I like and they better have something I like if they want me to buy.